Aug 10, 2021
When children develop behavioral challenges, parents and caregivers often experience existential crises of their own. Painful questions start to come up: Am I saying the right things to my kid? Do I even know what to do in this situation? Have I failed as a parent?
That’s what Jonathan Simon, Brightline’s chief technology officer, went through when his eldest son started having conflicts as a preschooler. In this blog post, Jonathan candidly shares his personal story of his experience as a parent of a child with high behavioral health needs — and why he’s so motivated to be part of a company that brings much-needed solutions to help families like his.
By Jonathan Simon
Just a couple of months ago, I was standing in my backyard with my elementary school-aged son. In a fit of anger, he had scoured the backyard for objects to use as weapons and after finding a few, was trying to use them against me and his mom. We had to call emergency services to deescalate the situation — thankfully, without incident.
My son is whip smart, off the charts creative, a born leader, a natural builder, incredibly empathetic and so many other wonderful things that we hoped for. He can also get angry very quickly — sometimes unexpectedly — which was the case on this day. Needless to say, when my wife and I decided to have kids, the situation we found ourselves in our backyard is not something I imagined myself being in as a dad.
All of this is incredibly difficult and scary to talk about. But I hope that sharing a glimpse of my family’s journey will explain why I’m so passionate about what we’re doing at Brightline. The solution Brightline provides is so important to families like mine — and parents like me.
My son had trouble regulating from very early on — sometimes crying inconsolably for hours with no obvious reason, then returning back to normal like nothing ever happened. But it was manageable while he was a baby; some extra soothing or an environment change would always snap him out of it. By preschool, however, he became frequently frustrated and triggered at school, sometimes lashing out violently. Often, he was sent home. As first-time parents and both youngest kids ourselves, my wife and I had minimal frame of reference on the norms for little kids. We were confused and had no idea where to turn.
This is where the negative reinforcement cycles really started.
Over the next several years, my son went to several different schools and camps. He was given frequent feedback from his teachers and friends that he was a problem — and he received the same messages from us, his parents, which I’m really sad about. Kids our son’s age didn’t want playdates with him, and he was left out of activities at school.
Meanwhile, my wife and I were constantly told by teachers and school directors that we must be doing something wrong and that we were failing as parents. We were glared at during pickups and dropoffs by parents and teachers, pulled aside about our son’s most recent behaviors, and frequently put in the position of de-escalating conflicts with teachers and caregivers. We were “that parent,” the one who gets told, “Hi, can we talk for a moment?” by every teacher, camp counselor or program director. “That parent” who other parents glance at and turn away from, quickly, with their own child in tow, hoping to somehow avoid us. It was a sad and isolating experience. We knew how our son felt.
Stepping back and looking at the emotional toll across our family has been eye-opening. The difficulties of managing my son’s behavioral health needs have been complex for our family, but the constant negative reinforcement put us so much further in emotional debt. On top of the dysregulation, our son became depressed, sad, and anxious. He started having trouble sleeping and became distrustful of authority figures.
Meanwhile my wife and I grew nervous every time the phone rang while our son was at school. The threat of expulsion was a frequent and constant undercurrent of stress and uncertainty for our family. We were often called urgently to help manage our son’s behavior in school or take him home — sometimes for the day, other times permanently. School routines were often changed quickly, disrupting his friendships, our daily family routines, and our work routines. My wife and I weren’t able to take breaks because we couldn’t get consistent childcare; multiple babysitters quit mid-shift.
Exhausted, we began to constantly doubt ourselves as parents. And to top it off, our younger son started showing signs of distress as a result of these issues.
My wife and I knew we needed help. In fact, I changed jobs to work at a major tech company with a reputation for taking great care of its employees. I got in touch with my manager and the company’s employee support program, but soon learned the mental health benefits offered only supported adults. Then I discovered that no such benefits existed in the pediatric behavioral health space.
We sought help through the traditional health care system, but kept hitting dead ends. We went to our pediatrician — who repeatedly told us nothing was wrong. We waited a year to get an evaluation from a developmental pediatrician — but received no answers there either aside from a pat on the back and a reassurance we’d be fine. This was extremely frustrating since many of the treatment options required the evaluation. We started getting therapy for our son from a local center for children’s therapy — until it shut down. We went to provider after provider but were told either there was nothing wrong or there was nothing they could do.
I was back to square one. My work suffered. As my son’s needs escalated, I ended up going on family leave from work.
Then I met Naomi Allen, Brightline’s CEO and co-founder. I learned about her plans for a pediatric behavioral health solution that could give families like mine the help we needed — a solution that could educate and equip parents and caregivers to hold informed conversations with teachers and doctors, provide coaching programs for specific concerns, and connect us with the clinicians and specialists we desperately needed.
I joined the Brightline team in December 2019 as the fifth employee. And I haven’t looked back since. It’s incredibly empowering to know you’re creating something to fix a problem you’ve experienced firsthand. My family needed help. We couldn’t get it. Now I’m helping to change that.
Thankfully, my family is finally getting the care we need. We’re making progress, but it’s slow and has many setbacks, like the incident that happened a couple months ago. I’m not going to say Brightline is a magic solution that would have fixed all of my family’s issues. But I can definitely say it would have improved our experience immensely.
This is what makes me excited to come to work every day and forge on through the complexity and uncertainty of an early-stage and fast-growing startup. I’m grateful to be building something that my family and I needed — and still need. And I’m especially grateful that we can provide this service for other families so they don’t have to live through the experiences my family has lived through.
Jonathan Simon is Brightline’s Chief Technology Officer and proud dad of two boys. He previously led engineering teams at Facebook, is the former CTO at AllTrails, and is a frequent advisor, author, and speaker on startups and technology.